Metaphor Marketing

Harvard Business School professor Jerry Zaltman makes pictures that reveal our deepest feelings about your favorite brands. Can he scan your brain and unlock the images that lie within?

Jerry Zaltman’s brain is all over the place. One lobe has spilled onto a bookshelf, another has plopped onto a fallen picture frame, and the stem is buried beneath the edge of a half-read manuscript. It’s not a pretty sight.


But there’s hope. Zaltman eases himself from his chair and begins retrieving the pieces – plastic sections of a life-sized model of the human brain. He glances at each brain chunk and then, in a blur, effortlessly reassembles the whole. In an instant, he’s got the brain back together again.

He pauses. And for a moment, he grasps it. Tenderly, Jerry Zaltman grasps the human brain. Which is why some of the biggest, richest companies on the planet have journeyed to his cluttered Harvard Business School office to rethink everything they know about marketing.

Marketing is a luxury of progress. It is necessary only in cultures that have largely satisfied basic human needs. The homeless and the hungry are still among us, but today most Americans have little trouble obtaining the basics: Their world is marked by oversupply in almost every category, from cars to candy bars. The average American supermarket is stuffed with 30,000 different items. Since 1980, the number of products launched each year has tripled; in 1996 alone, companies introduced some 17,000 new products. For sellers, this reality is daunting: How do I stand out? For buyers, it’s confusing: How do I get what I want, when I want it? For Zaltman, a few disciples, and a handful of forward-thinking companies, it’s an opportunity to reinvent marketing.


The problem, Zaltman says, is that our knowledge of what we need lies so deeply embedded in our brains that it rarely surfaces. Our native tongue is powerless to call it out of hiding; a second, more obscure language is needed. But few who speak to us in the marketplace even know that this second language exists – let alone how to speak it.

“A lot goes on in our minds that we’re not aware of,” says Zaltman. “Most of what influences what we say and do occurs below the level of awareness. That’s why we need new techniques: to get at hidden knowledge – to get at what people don’t know they know.”

Zaltman invented perhaps the most powerful of these methods. He calls it the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique – this self-effacing man’s only discernible act of ego. But to most, U.S. Patent Number 5,436,830 (“a technique for eliciting interconnected constructs that influence thought and behavior”) is known simply as ZMET. The method combines neurobiology, psychoanalysis, linguistics, and art theory to try to uncover the mental models that guide consumer behavior – to illuminate the dark shadows of the customer brain. It is a bilingual phrase book that can narrow the linguistic gap between the marketer and the marketed-to. In other words, in the effort to decode the hieroglyphics etched on the walls of our minds – our emotions, feelings, and fears – ZMET may be the new economy’s Rosetta Stone.


The Truth About Panty Hose

You don’t have to be a neuroscientist to get your mind around panty hose. Women’s stockings are often a form of nylon-based cruelty: They’re hot, uncomfortable, and prone to run at the worst possible moment.

“Conventional research told us that women mostly hated wearing panty hose,” says Glenda Green, a market-research manager at DuPont, which manufactures fibers for women’s hosiery. “We did tremendous research – telephone interviews, mall-intercept interviews, everything you can think of.” But she wasn’t convinced that the company really understood what lurked deep in women’s minds: “We thought there was a dimension of this that we were missing.”


To test Green’s suspicions, Zaltman selected 20 panty-hose-wearing women to be “Z-metted.” The process began, as always, with a question: “What are your thoughts and feelings about buying and wearing panty hose?”

To answer the question, the women enacted ZMET’s crucial next step: They collected a dozen pictures from magazines, catalogs, and family photo albums that captured their thoughts and feelings about the product. The women found images of steel bands strangling trees, of twisted telephone cords, and of fence posts encased in a tight plastic wrap – not too hard to figure out. But they also chose pictures of two African masks hanging on a bare wall, of an ice-cream sundae spilled on the ground, of a luxury car, and of flowers resting peacefully in a vase. Hmmmm.

A week later, after those images had simmered in each woman’s subconscious, the subjects discussed each picture during an intense two-hour session with one of Zaltman’s specially trained interviewer-cum-therapists. Then, with the aid of a technician using Adobe Photoshop, participants created collages of their thoughts and feelings about panty hose – works of art that doubled as windows into their minds.


The discovery: Yes, women do hate wearing panty hose. But it’s more complicated than that. It’s not that women have a love-hate relationship with nylons. Rather, they have a “like-hate” relationship.

“We got intensity, texture, and depth that we’d never gotten from other studies,” Green recalls. “This was the first time we heard positive things that we could act on.” For instance, the woman who chose the image of the fence posts encased in plastic wrap also selected the photo of the vase of flowers: Wearing the product made her feel thin and tall. The ice-cream sundae represented the embarrassment caused by stocking runs; the expensive car, the feeling of luxury. One woman’s final collage pictured a cookie cutter wrapped in a garden hose, and set against the backdrop of a silk dress – conformity and discomfort on a field of elegance.

“The images also brought out subtleties related to sexual issues,” Green recalls. “Women would say, ‘They make my legs feel longer.’ Why is it important to have long legs? ‘Men like long legs.’ Why do men like long legs? ‘They’re sexy.’ And eventually women would say they wanted to feel sexy to men. You don’t get that in a straight interview.”


These findings led hosiery manufacturers and retailers to alter their advertising to include not only images of supercompetent career women but also images of sexiness and allure – even when pitching the product to supercompetent career women. Inspired by Green’s findings, one hosiery maker began including in each package a small card decorated with a yin-yang symbol on one side (to emphasize the like-hate duality) and a personalized quotation on the other (to send a message of understanding and caring). “It was a little card of female affirmation,” says Green.

Market Research by the Book

If the $3.9 billion market-research industry were a book, ZMET would open chapter three. Chapter one began in the 1930s, when newspapers and magazines launched public-opinion polls – first to predict elections, then to gauge sentiment on other topics. As statisticians and demographers refined their techniques, companies began to build much of their marketing on survey research. Ask people what they think, catalog their responses, tally them up, slice the data this way and that, and – voila! – you’re inside the customer’s head.


But numbers have their limitations, marketers discovered. Begin chapter two: qualitative research – whose impact on market research traces back to 1941, when Columbia University sociologist Robert Merton conducted the first focus group. Since then, a range of new qualitative techniques have burst onto the scene: in-depth interviews, participant observation (watch Billy play with a new toy from behind a one-way mirror), ethnographic research (move in with the Jones family and record their diurnal habits, like Margaret Mead in New Guinea), and projective techniques (“If this shampoo were a dog, what kind of dog would it be?”).

But with more products filling store shelves, and with the Internet creating an entirely new way to reach customers, companies have grown restive with even the most innovative qualitative techniques. Zaltman thought he knew why: Market researchers didn’t understand the human brain, and they were speaking the wrong language.

Cognitive scientists have learned that human beings think in images, not in words. But most market research uses words, not images: It relies on surveys, questionnaires, and focus groups. Sociolinguists know that most communication is nonverbal. But most research tools are, as Zaltman puts it, “verbocentric.”


Poets and psychiatrists understand that metaphor – viewing one thing in terms of another – is central to thought and crucial to uncovering latent needs and emotions. But most marketers are so caught up in the literal, they neglect the metaphoric.

“People can give us only what we give them the opportunity to provide,” Zaltman says. “To the extent that we structure the stimulus – whether it’s a discussion guide in a focus group or a question in a survey – all people can do is respond. And there’s value in that. But I see those as strip-mining techniques,” Zaltman says, deploying – what else? – a metaphor. “Sometimes the valuable ore is on the surface. But often it’s not. Strip-mining techniques are inappropriate when there’s a great deal more depth to be had. Typically, the deeper you go, the more value there is.”

Chocolate Clocks & Security Dogs


Bite into a nestle crunch bar, and you immediately savor the milk chocolate and crisped rice. It takes a more sophisticated palate to taste the metaphor.

When he used ZMET to probe the attitudes of 10 Nestle Crunch fans, Zaltman first uncovered what you might expect. Through their pictures and Photoshop collages, subjects revealed that they saw the candy bar as a small indulgence in a busy world, a source of quick energy, and something that just tasted good.

But as Zaltman probed more deeply, he unearthed a surprise. “The Nestle Crunch bar turns out to be a very powerful icon of time,” Zaltman says. “The company had never noticed that before.” Subjects brought in pictures of old pickup trucks, of children playing on picket-fenced suburban lawns, of grandfather clocks, of snowmen, and of American flags. The candy bar evoked powerful memories of childhood, of simpler times. It was less a workday pick-me-up than a time machine back to childhood. At the very least, Zaltman says, Nestle found out that “a cue about time could be especially engaging – whether it’s an hourglass or a clock or a sepia drawing on the wall. It can be a very small item, but you know that the eye is going to be directed toward it.”


While Nestle learned something new about a product that was old, Motorola learned something unexpected about a product not yet born. Late last year, the company was studying how to market a new security system. Hoping to understand the metaphorical side of the product, a few managers used ZMET to ask, How do potential customers feel when they’re secure and when they’re insecure? Then, same drill as always: pictures, interviews, artwork.

“I was struck by how very profound and fascinating the pictures were,” says Wini Schaeffer, a Motorola manager involved in the project. What images did subjects select? Dogs. Lots of them. Interviewees revealed that canines represented comfort and security: the feeling of protection that comes from knowing that a loyal animal is looking out for them. This finding could have enormous implications for how the product is positioned – less as a technological gizmo, more as a companion – and for how it is named: Don’t call it “The Talkatron.” Call it, say, “The Watchdog.”

“I can’t imagine that a survey would uncover that,” says Schaeffer. “In this method, there are aha’s. You get answers to questions that you never thought to ask.”


Thinking Across Boundaries

In the land of the metaphor, Jerry Zaltman is an evangelist, loping across the country to spread the ZMET gospel. In recent months, he’s traveled to Atlanta to advise Coca-Cola and to Cincinnati to consult with Proctor & Gamble. But the mother church is on the Harvard Business School campus, in a suite that resembles a doctor’s office: a place called the “Seeing the Voice of the Customer Lab.”

After luring Zaltman away from the University of Pittsburgh in 1991, Harvard agreed to help finance this site and to fill it with a small staff. One of Zaltman’s most seasoned interviewers is consultant Randi Cohen, a lean and stylish 30-year-old Stanford PhD, who also teaches marketing at Boston University. For what she calls her “guided conversations,” she stations herself in a windowless room not much different from the kind that police use to interrogate suspects. In one of the lab’s other two rooms sits Marion Finkle, a 31-year-old graphic artist who helps subjects use the bleeding-edge software necessary to create beguiling digital images. And in the third room is Trevor Messersmith, a hip twentysomething who, like Finkle, designs the multimedia presentations that the lab delivers to clients at the end of a project. In this setting, the Z-Team members more resemble the staff of a Silicon Alley startup than the employees of North America’s most venerable university.


But Zaltman isn’t your typical business-school professor: He resists absolute pronouncements – often responding to a question with another question, or by admitting that he doesn’t know the answer. Asked why he moved to Pittsburgh from a tenured position on the renowned marketing faculty at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School, he says, “To tell you the truth, I don’t have a good answer.” Asked why he accepted Harvard’s invitation to leave Pitt, he says, “Sometimes we do things for more complicated reasons than we’ll allow ourselves to see.”

And like the plastic models in his office, Zaltman’s brain is all over the place. He studies neuroscience, art, semiotics, computers, and, yes, even business. At Pitt, he held positions in the School of Public Health, the Department of Sociology, the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, and the Business School. At Harvard, he’s a fellow at the Mind, Brain, Behavior Initiative, one of the nation’s most ambitious interdisciplinary undergraduate majors.

This ability to think across disciplines is the secret of ZMET, Zaltman says. And it’s a skill that’s becoming critical in the new world of business: “I don’t buy the notion that the world is organized the way universities and companies are. Ideas don’t know what discipline they’re in,” he explains. “We might kidnap them and say, ‘That’s a marketing idea’ or ‘That’s an anthropology idea.’ But if you walked up to an idea on the street, it wouldn’t know about that.”

Nepal Meets Magritte

The trail to ZMET begins in Nepal. In 1990, propelled by three divergent interests (photography, cognitive neuroscience, and Third World anthropology) Zaltman traveled to Nepal to photograph periodic markets, commercial conclaves that meet in rural areas every few months.

While he was there, Zaltman says, “I started thinking about the issue of bias. I can take all the pictures in the world, and they’ll still be my photographs of someone else. The idea occurred to me: Maybe I should give film and cameras to people who had never looked through a lens before.”

He contacted Eastman Kodak, which provided him with plastic cameras and 650 rolls of film. Accompanied by his wife and another couple, Zaltman returned to Nepal. “We’d visit a place, give people cameras, ask them to take pictures. We’d say, ‘If you were to leave this village, what pictures would you take with you to show others what your life is like?'”

The villagers snapped their photos. Then the Zaltmans developed them and showed them to the “photographers.” Then, Zaltman explains, “We had people talk to us through an interpreter about what these photographs meant. We think of these people as unsophisticated, but it was exciting to discover how effective they were in telling stories. In every strip of negatives, there was a story – one full of paradox, contrast, and contradiction.”

For instance, most of the photos cut off people’s feet. “At first, I thought the villagers had just aimed wrong,” Zaltman says. “But it turns out that being barefoot is a sign of poverty. Even though everyone was barefoot, people wanted to hide that – which is another important message.”

Zaltman knew he was onto something. He just wasn’t sure what. So when he returned to Pitt, he began experimenting with a new methodology, often with the help of Robin Coulter, one of his star PhD students. At first, the researchers gave participants cameras and told them to shoot images that captured their thoughts and feelings about a particular product or service. But subjects often had difficulty taking exactly the pictures they desired, so Zaltman and Coulter allowed them to select images from magazines and newspapers. Around this time, Zaltman says, “I also got interested in digital imaging.” And in his spare moments, he studied some of the breakthrough research in neuroscience. Crossing the borders of many disciplines, Zaltman began to map a new approach to marketing.

In its final form, the approach recalls the surrealist movement in literature and art, which reached its zenith in the 1920s and 1930s. Rather than depict our conscious perception of the physical world, the surrealists sought to portray the subconscious, particularly as it was revealed in dreams. Visual art of the period often depicted melting clocks and liquid trees, incongruously positioned against hallucinatory landscapes. Zaltman has brought that sensibility to the world of market research. Goodbye, Gallup. Hello, Dali.

In fact, Zaltman’s approach stretches from those barefoot villagers in Nepal to the quote, taken from surrealist painter Rene Magritte, that opens his course syllabus: “Everything we see hides something else we want to see.”

Brain-Scan Marketing

On a bed in Massachusetts General Hospital, a woman lies on her back, her head held motionless beneath a specially molded face mask. She breathes slowly and a bit tentatively. With each breath, she inhales a few radioactive particles – invisible messengers that enter her bloodstream, where they can easily be tracked. Her head rests in a small chamber that looks like a giant frosted donut. Then the experiment begins. A scientist slips a cassette into a tape player, and a voice describes the car dealership from hell – cigarette-stained linoleum floors, garish lights, an overbearing salesforce. In another room, a computer paints a picture of what’s happening inside her brain.

This is one of ZMET’s next frontiers. With Stephen Kosslyn, a Mind, Brain, Behavior faculty member, Zaltman has begun using positron emission tomography (brain scans) to see how – or more precisely, where – consumers think. In the pair’s first and only study, subjects were read descriptions of three car dealerships – one good, one bad, one humdrum – while researchers monitored blood flow through their brains.

“Sure enough,” Zaltman says, “we found that when we played the audiotape of negative experiences, the area in the right brain associated with negative thoughts lit up.” In particular, Kosslyn says, descriptions of the sleazy car dealership excited the subjects’ right frontal lobe – the area of the brain associated with the primitive instinct of withdrawal. When they heard descriptions of the more welcoming dealerships – nice carpeting, gleaming computers, helpful staff – parts of the brain associated with positive emotions lit up instead. Tinker a little more with the description, and you could design the car dealership of people’s dreams, a retail setting that you know will tickle their brains and move their feet.

Refine the process further, says Kosslyn, and “the potential is revolutionary.” For instance, you could segment the market along entirely new lines – not only according to how big people’s wallets are but also according to how people think. Some customers are visual; others are auditory. Use brain scans to classify your customer base, and then target the first group with a newspaper display ad and the second with a radio spot.

At the moment, however, Zaltman has taken only a few tentative steps into this new territory. The car-dealership study was of just six subjects – a half-dozen right-handed women. Zaltman and Kosslyn are hustling up funds for more such experiments. Meantime, Zaltman is pushing into new frontiers. Recently, for example, he used ZMET to study 24 executives enrolled in Harvard Business School’s executive-education program. The question: What are your thoughts and feelings about being customer-focused? Part of the answer: It means collecting information, analyzing data, anticipating customer needs – all exactly what customer-service gurus advise. But ZMET revealed another part of the answer: Being customer-focused means having integrity, caring about customers in an authentic way, being a company worthy of trust. “The executives were surprised by how much of their individual thinking was shared by others, although they had never discussed these things with anyone,” says Zaltman.

In another study of Harvard executives, researchers asked what it means to develop a marketing strategy. Again, ZMET surfaced unexpected meanings. Developing a marketing strategy meant having passion, demonstrating integrity, having fun. “This is not in the marketing textbooks,” Zaltman says.

The Mind of the Manager

Ultimately, even a great metaphor has to deliver results – which is why Zaltman treats each project as a test. So far, ZMET has not only delivered the same kinds of findings as more conventional research methods; it has also generated its own metaphor-based insights. “The fact that we came up with what other techniques have also found provided a validation. You couldn’t dismiss the special results without dismissing the other results,” he says. “But in every case, we’ve come up with additional insights.”

But even those who use and endorse Zaltman’s approach are mindful of its limitations. “ZMET is not a replacement. It’s a complement,” says Jennifer Barron, head of strategic market research at Monitor Co., who has used the technique. “It’s more helpful in a category that’s not 100% rational. With something like financial services, where there’s an emotional element – how you provide for your family – it makes sense. But I don’t know if I’d use ZMET on industrial salt.” For some purposes, a survey or a focus group does just fine.

Zaltman himself always makes clear that his technique doesn’t offer neat solutions to any company’s problems. “Research can never tell you what to do,” he says. “It can only give you the basis for being creative in what you do. Ultimately, it’s the mind of the manager that matters. If managers don’t know their own minds, they’re not going to understand the mind of the customer.”

“Daniel H. Pink” is a Fast Company contributing editor. His article, “Free Agent Nation,” appeared in the December:January 1998 issue. Find out more about Jerry Zaltman’s work on the Web